CHAPTER NINE

LIZ WAS STILL SHAKING AS SHE climbed the three steps to the library. She told herself it didn’t matter. That Ethan had to say that to Denise. It wasn’t as if his mother was a fan. Besides, there wasn’t anything else to tell the woman. But in her gut, Liz felt just as dismissed and hurt as she had twelve years before-when Ethan had denied their relationship to all his friends.

She might have had a child with him, and slept with him and still be fighting feelings from the past, but the bottom line was, she couldn’t trust him. Not ever. He couldn’t escape his family name and reputation anymore than she could.

She reached for the front door and pulled it open. A woman with a stroller smiled. “Thanks for the help,” she said.

“You’re welcome.”

The twenty-something woman pushed the stroller through the door, then turned back.

“Are you Liz Sutton? I thought I recognized your picture from your books.”

Liz nodded cautiously.

The woman’s warm smile faded. “My sister went to high school with you. When she told me that you were the class slut, I didn’t want to believe her. But now that I’ve heard what you did to poor Ethan Hendrix, I know every word is true. I’ll never read your books again.”

Hit number three, Liz thought, standing in the sunlight, determined not to go inside until she was sure she wasn’t going to cry.

She told herself the young mother didn’t know her. That other people’s opinions had no meaning. That the truth was much less clear than most people realized. All of which was bullshit, she thought, finally stepping into the cool darkness of the library.

As soon as they got back to the house, she was getting out the phone book, she promised herself. She would get bids on fixing up the house and pay whatever premium was required to get the work done quickly. When the house was finished, she would take the girls and Tyler, return to San Francisco and never, ever come back to this hellhole.

THE ONLY BRIGHT SPOT IN AN otherwise hideous morning had been Montana’s enthusiasm over the book signing. Ethan’s sister had insisted on showing Liz the initial design for the posters and all the Internet postings. Montana swore people would drive into town from hundreds of miles away, just to meet Liz and have her sign books. Liz was less sure of her popularity, but it beat being verbally spit at by the locals.

She helped Tyler carry his armload of books into the house. He’d picked out several he thought Abby might like, which Liz appreciated. After sending him to his room to play computer games for an hour, she called Melissa and Abby into the living room.

The two girls sat on the sofa. They looked impossibly young, she thought, wishing things had been different for them. However much she might currently hate her own life, what Abby and Melissa were feeling was ten times worse. They were just kids who didn’t deserve what had happened to them.

She sat on the coffee table in front of the couch and leaned toward the girls.

“I’m going to fix up the house,” she began. “Your dad started a lot of projects, but I don’t know how to finish them. So unless one of you is holding out some secret contractor knowledge, I’ll be hiring a team to finish the work.”

Melissa looked wary, but Abby smiled. “I can help.”

“I’m sure you can.”

“What happens after the house is finished?” Melissa asked.

Not the question Liz wanted to answer. “We’re going back to San Francisco.”

Melissa and Abby exchanged a look. Tears filled Abby’s eyes while Melissa started shaking her head.

“No, we’re not,” she announced. “We’re staying here. We live here.”

“I know it will be hard,” Liz began.

“It doesn’t have to be.” Melissa stood up. Her face was red, her eyes bright with tears she blinked away. “We’ll run away. We don’t need you.”

Abby stood, too, then leaned into Liz who hugged her close.

“I’m sorry,” Liz murmured into her hair, hanging on tight. “I’m sorry.”

“W-what does Dad say?” Abby asked in a whisper.

“That you’re going to stay with me.”

Abby raised her head. “He doesn’t want us, does he? No one wants us.”

“I want you,” Liz assured, wishing she had the power to take away their pain and make them feel safe. “No matter what, we’ll be together. Your dad being in prison isn’t about you. It’s about him. If he wasn’t there, he’d still be here.”

“With us. Where we belong,” Melissa snapped. “In our house. You’re going to sell it, aren’t you? And take all the money.”

Liz continued to hold Abby, but turned her attention to the teenager. “I’m going to fix it up. Then the three of us will sit down with a real estate agent and discuss the benefits of renting it versus selling outright. Either way the money will go into trust for both of you. For when you’re older. This isn’t about taking anything from you and I think you know that.”

“You’re taking away everything,” Melissa said, losing her battle with the tears. They spilled down her cheeks. She brushed them away and glared at Liz. “You can’t do this to us.”

“Tyler and I can’t stay here. San Francisco isn’t so far away. You’ll be able to visit your friends.”

“How?” Melissa asked.

“Tyler will be coming back to see his dad. You can come with him. I’m not trying to make this worse. We need to settle in to being a family. I want that. You girls are important to me.”

“I’m not going,” Melissa said, crossing her arms over her chest. “You can’t make me.”

Abby stared at Liz. “I want to be with you.”

Liz kissed her forehead. “I’m glad. I want you to keep in touch with your friends. We’ll work on that. Okay?”

Abby nodded.

“She’s lying,” Melissa told her sister. “She doesn’t care about us at all.”

“If she didn’t care, she’d just leave,” Abby noted, still holding on to Liz. “Like Bettina did. We don’t have a choice. There’s no one else.”

The simple words spoken with the wisdom of a child, broke Liz’s heart. No eleven-year-old should have to be so keenly aware of life’s unpleasant realities. Tyler was the same age and he didn’t know anything about how the dark side of the world operated.

“I want to make it work,” Liz reiterated to Melissa.

“I’m not leaving,” Melissa told her and walked out.

“She’ll get over it,” Abby said, stepping back. “It’ll take a while, but she will. She was scared when we were alone before.”

“Weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I had someone taking care of me. She didn’t have anyone.”

“I’m sorry,” Liz apologized. “I wish I’d known about you before.”

“Me, too.”

AFTER LUNCH, THE FOUR OF THEM went to the community pool. They found a cool spot in the shade. Liz leaned against a tree, opened her laptop and prayed for inspiration. Technically her deadline was generous enough that she wasn’t exactly behind. Not yet. But give it another few weeks and she would feel the panic.

While her computer booted up, she gazed around the pool, taking in the other mothers and kids. Most of them seemed to know each other. One of the blessings-and curses-of small-town life.

She turned her attention to Tyler, spotting him easily from years of practice, then finding Melissa and Abby. Their red hair made them stand out in the crowd. A good thing, she told herself. After the morning she’d had, she was due for a break or two.

The streak didn’t last. Five seconds later, someone spoke her name.

“Liz.”

She didn’t have to look up to recognize Ethan, who was very possibly the last person she wanted to see right now. Or ever.

“Tyler told me that you’d be here after lunch.”

She kept her gaze firmly on her screen. With practiced ease, she opened her word processing program, then loaded the book in progress.

He dropped to the grass next to her. “Did I mention that I’m sorry?”

Grateful for the big hat she’d pulled on and the sunglasses shielding her eyes, she turned toward him. At least she didn’t have to worry about him seeing she was more hurt than angry. He wouldn’t know about the bitter taste of betrayal on her tongue or the lingering sense of having been hit in the gut.

“I didn’t mean for you to hear that,” he explained.

“Right. So you’re apologizing for me hearing it but not for saying it. Thanks for the clarification.”

His gaze sharpened. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Isn’t it? It’s what you said.”

“Dammit, Liz, give me a break.”

“Why? You spent the first part of the morning telling Tyler that it’s my fault you and he don’t know each other and the hour before noon telling your mother that I don’t mean anything to you. I wasn’t expecting you to declare I was the love of your life, but a little respect would have been nice.”

“You’re right.”

“But that was too much. Instead you threw me under the bus. I’m not even surprised. You’ve done it before.”

His gaze never left her face. “Why is it you get to tell me to stop bringing up the past, but you get to do it as much as you want?”

She opened her mouth, then closed it. She was angry and hurt and didn’t want to admit he had a point. One she was going to ignore.

“We slept together, Ethan. We didn’t plan it, but it happened. We have a child together. You can’t say we’re on the same team to my face, then undermine me every chance you get.”

He drew in a breath. “I know. I’m sorry. I keep saying that and I mean it. Everything is different. Complicated. I’m trying to figure out what happens next.”

“What happens next is we come up with a plan. A way for you to spend time with Tyler.”

“I am spending time with him.”

Despite the fact that he couldn’t see her eyes, she looked away. “For later,” she clarified. “When I go back to San Francisco.”

His jaw tightened and his eyes darkened. “You’re leaving? When?”

“I’m not sure. I want to fix up the house. I’m hiring a contractor to do the work. Then we’re leaving.” She turned back to him and pulled off her sunglasses. “This isn’t about keeping you from Tyler, I swear. We’ll do alternating weekends, share holidays.”

“I don’t want you to leave.”

“That’s not an option. I can’t live here. I have a life I need to get back to. A job.”

“You can write anywhere.”

“You speak from experience?” she asked, her voice sharp with annoyance. “I hate it here. Everyone is very comfortable getting in my face about my past and they don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t see anyone blaming you. I want you to know your son. I want you to be a part of things, but whatever plan we come up with isn’t going to include me staying here. When the house is finished, we’re all leaving.”

Ethan stared at her for a long time. She tried to read his expression but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He wasn’t happy, but it hardly took insight to figure that out.

Finally he stood. “Thanks for the update,” he said at last.

“You’re pissed.”

“You’re stealing him from me. Again.”

“What do I have to do to convince you that’s not what I’m doing? You keep forgetting I’m the one who tried to get you into his life five years ago. I want this to work. But it’s going to have to happen with him living in San Francisco.”

He nodded once and left. Liz checked on all three kids, then leaned against the tree and drew in a breath.

There would be consequences, she thought grimly. With Ethan there were always consequences. He would probably try to convince her to stay. Which was fine. Let him try. But there was nothing he could say or do to keep her in town. And the sooner he figured that out, the better for all of them.

LIZ STILL WASN’T SLEEPING, SO morning came early. With the kids out of school, she didn’t have to worry about getting them up and ready, but there were other considerations. Mostly that today the construction team would arrive to start the remodeling. Jeff, the burly fifty-something contractor she’d hired, had promised his team would be at her place no later than seven. The fact that they would be done by four each day was minimal comfort.

She had set her travel alarm for six, showered, dressed and made coffee. She was on her second cup when someone knocked on her front door.

She crossed the living room to open it and smiled at the three women and one guy she saw on her porch.

“Right on time,” she began, then blinked several times when she noticed the identical beige T-shirts they wore.

Instead of the ladder and truck logo she’d seen in the phone book, the name “Hendrix Construction” was spelled out in a sturdy font.

“You’re not Jeff’s crew, are you?” she asked already knowing the answer.

The woman closest to the door handed her a cell phone. “Boss said you’d want to talk to him.”

She did her best not to shriek. “How thoughtful of him. If you’ll excuse me?”

She closed the front door, looked at the number already punched into the cell phone, and pushed the send button. He answered on the first ring.

“Don’t take it out on the team,” Ethan said.

“Take what out on the charming construction crew on my front porch?”

“You know. And it’s not Jeff’s fault, either. He owed me.”

“You seem very determined to make sure I blame you,” she countered, her voice low, but still thick with anger. “Don’t worry. I have every intention of making sure you pay for this.”

“Look, you wanted your house fixed up. My team will do a great job.”

She stepped away from the door and clutched the phone tighter. Outrage churned the coffee in her stomach. “Dammit, Ethan. What is wrong with you?”

“I bought out Jeff’s contract. At a premium.”

“I hope he totally screwed you.”

“He made a profit.”

“At least one of us is happy.” She glanced around the run-down house and knew fixing it up wasn’t optional. “Why are you doing this? Is it the thrill of constantly bugging me?”

“I want to know what you’re doing. You’re taking my kid away from me, Liz. I don’t want any surprises.”

“How is any of this a surprise? I told you my plan and made it very clear I want to work things out. I want you to have a relationship with Tyler. Why can’t you believe that?”

“I do. I’m covering my bases. You ran once. You can do it again.”

The unfairness of the accusation made her catch her breath. “I ran after you told all your friends I was some cheap whore you’d never bother with. The night before you’d promised to love me forever.” She grabbed the back of the sofa. “Never mind, Ethan. I totally get it. You can’t be trusted and you assume the world is just like you. Watch me all you want, if it gives you a thrill. I don’t care. I’ve got nothing to hide. But here’s the thing. Some of us do the right thing because it’s what we’ve been taught, while others do it because it’s who they are. I know which side I’m on in that discussion. If you’re worried about how someone is playing this game while hiding his true character, you should look in the mirror.”

She hung up, then crossed to the front door and pulled it open. After handing back the cell phone, she motioned for the crew to come in.

“You might as well get started,” she told them.

It didn’t matter who did the work, she thought as she walked upstairs. The sooner everything was finished, the sooner she could get the hell out of Fool’s Gold.

But the morning surprises weren’t quite over. As she walked into the master bedroom where Tyler was sleeping, she found Melissa standing by her dresser. The teen had Liz’s wallet in her left hand and three twenties in her right.

Their eyes met. Liz had a feeling she looked shocked and more than a little stupid. The mystery of the lost pizza money and the missing bills from her wallet the previous week was suddenly solved. A sense of betrayal battled with the realization that the few months of abandonment had affected Melissa more than she’d let on.

The teen dropped the wallet back into Liz’s purse, let the twenties flutter to the floor as she pushed past Liz and raced out of the room. Liz followed, reaching Melissa’s bedroom door just before the girl could push it closed.

Melissa sat on her bed, her arms folded across her chest, her gaze locked on the floor. Liz pulled over the chair at the desk, then sat down.

“I guess we should talk about this,” she said slowly. “I’m sorry. I should have thought the situation through. You were left with nothing, forced to steal to feed yourself and your sister. I can tell you that you’re safe over and over again, but why should you believe me? You don’t know me from a rock, I’m threatening to take you from your home and your friends. What if I leave like Bettina did? You’d have nothing. Nowhere to go. And there’s Abby. You love her, but she’s a big responsibility. You’re only fourteen. It’s way too much.”

Melissa didn’t speak. Her hair covered most of her face, but Liz saw the tears dropping onto her folded hands.

Liz ached for her. While she knew there had to be consequences for stealing, these were extraordinary circumstances. She wanted to be fair but also supportive.

“How much do you have?” she asked, trying to remember exactly how much was missing.

Melissa swallowed and raised her head. There were tears in her eyes, and a look of both defiance and shame. “One hundred and twenty dollars.”

“Did you have a goal in mind? An amount that would make you feel safe?”

The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe two hundred dollars.”

From a fourteen-year-old’s perspective, that probably was enough. Reality was very different.

“I should be giving you and Abby an allowance,” Liz told her. “I didn’t even think of it. Let’s talk later, when your sister is up. You’ll get it weekly. That will be for spending money.” She hesitated, not sure how to handle the stealing, but determined to do what felt right.

“I’ll give you the rest of the money you need so that you have two hundred dollars. We’ll put it in a safe place that only you and I know about. It will be there to make you feel safe. In return, you’ll stop stealing from me. Agreed?”

The defiance faded. “You’re not mad?”

“I’m disappointed, which is different. I understand why you took the money, but that doesn’t make it right.”

“So I’m still going to be punished.”

Liz hid a smile. “I think it’s important to be consistent.”

“There are always consequences,” Melissa grumbled with a sigh. Her gaze drifted to her nightstand. “Probably my cell phone would be the worst. For…” She sucked in a breath. “A week.”

Her voice was barely a whisper and more tears filled her eyes. Liz felt relief at the words. From what she could tell, Melissa was going to grow up to be an amazing person. She would try to remember that the next time her niece went off on her about the whole moving thing.

“I think two days is plenty,” Liz said. “On one condition.”

“Which is?” Melissa sounded relieved and a little wary.

“We’re going to be staying in town for a few weeks while the work is done on the house. I’ve signed up all three of you for the new day camp. End Zone for Kids. I want you to help me convince Abby and Tyler this will be fun for them.”

Defiance won over relief. “I’m too old for camp. I’m practically in high school.”

“I know,” Liz agreed. “When I called to register Abby and Tyler, I learned they have a program for older kids. It’s sponsored by the university film school. Students are supposed to be in high school to get in, but I convinced them you were mature and more than ready for the experience. I don’t know exactly what’s involved. I think you learn about making movies. Everything from writing scripts to acting. Unless you think that would be too boring.”

Melissa jumped to her feet, her face bright with excitement. “Really? I get to do that? Learn all about it and maybe be in a movie?”

“That’s what they said.”

“I would love that.”

“Good. Then you’ll help with convincing Abby and Tyler?”

“Sure.” Melissa picked up her cell. “I have to call Tiffany and…” The light faded. “I guess I’ll tell them in a couple of days,” she corrected as she handed over the phone.

Liz took it and put it in her pocket. “Thanks. Want to wake up your sister while I tackle Tyler?”

Melissa nodded. “What time do we leave?”

“Eight-thirty. Abby and Tyler are in a computer animation class. I hope they like it.”

“They’ll love it.”

Melissa turned to leave, then came back and hugged Liz. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “About taking the money.”

“Me, too, but I understand why you did it.” She put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “I’m not going to walk away from you and Abby. I know it’s going to take time, but it would nice if you started to believe me.”

Melissa nodded. “Okay.” Then she left.

Liz watched her go, appreciating the temporary truce. It was just a matter of time until they were fighting about the move. Melissa wasn’t going to give in on that easily. Regardless, it wasn’t a battle the teen was going to win. There was absolutely nothing anyone could say or do to convince Liz that she was staying in Fool’s Gold. She might have to return for the signing and to deliver Tyler to his father every other weekend, but she would do everything in her power to never again call this place home.

LIZ PICKED OUT HER CHOICE FOR lunch in a matter of minutes. The barbecue chicken salad looked great. It was what to have with it that had her stumped.

“You look determined,” Pia noted from across the table. “Should I be worried?”

Liz forced a smile. With everything going on in her life these days, the last thing she’d wanted to do was have lunch with Pia. But the other woman had insisted and Liz hadn’t been able to say no.

“I’m fine,” she replied, trying to unclench her teeth. “Just a little stressed.”

“How’s it going with Roy’s daughters? Are they having trouble adjusting to you?”

“Among other things.”

Pia looked sympathetic. “I can’t believe you’re going to be taking care of them. They’re young girls. You don’t even know them.”

“They’re family.”

Pia’s blue eyes darkened with an emotion Liz couldn’t read. “Yes, that is important, isn’t it? The whole family connection. I hope they know they’re lucky to have you.”

“I’m planning on moving them to San Francisco. They’re not happy about it-especially Melissa. Right now things are fine, but we’ll be fighting again later.”

The waitress appeared to take their drink orders.

“White wine,” Liz decided firmly. “Chardonnay.”

“Me, too,” Pia said, then grinned when their server left. “I don’t usually indulge in the middle of the day.”

“Me, either. But I’m walking home from here, the kids are taking the bus and I’ve earned it.”

“They’re up at the new camp?”

“Yes. Even Melissa was excited.” Liz told her about the film class.

“Sounds like fun,” Pia commented as their wine was delivered. “Keeps them from getting bored.”

Liz sipped her wine gratefully. “There’s going to be construction in the house. My brother was great at starting projects, but didn’t feel enthused about finishing them. The house needs to be fixed up so we can sell it or rent it out. I haven’t decided.”

“You haven’t been back in years and now you’re dealing with all this,” Pia described, sounding sympathetic. “That can’t be easy.”

“It’s not,” Liz admitted. “Between the unexpected responsibility of my nieces, Tyler getting to know his dad, me having to deal with Ethan and being back in Fool’s Gold, it’s been an active couple of weeks.” She took another sip. “Ethan’s mother hates me.”

“Denise? I doubt that. She likes everyone.”

If only that were true, Liz thought. “She doesn’t like me. She’s angry about me keeping Tyler from Ethan and the family.”

“Well, sure.”

Liz looked at the woman sitting across from her. “Let me pause and bask in your sympathy.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean for it to come out like that. But from her point of view, she’s lost time. Nothing can make up for that.” Pia held up her hand. “And before you go off on me about sleeping with Ethan right after you left-first, I didn’t know you were actually dating him. Second, nothing happened. He was too drunk that night and we didn’t make a second attempt.”

“You’re saying lack of penetration means it doesn’t count?”

“Something like that.”

Liz was too tired to fight, even with Pia. “I’ll accept the blame for the first six years that were lost, but not after that. I came back again.”

She briefly told Pia about her meeting with Rayanne and the subsequent letter.

Pia’s blue eyes widened. “I can’t believe she did that. I know Rayanne had her problems, but to keep Tyler from Ethan? And then she died without telling him.”

“Why are you surprised? She was never very nice. To me the question is more about why Ethan ever got involved with her.”

“She was pregnant when they got married,” Pia informed, then paused as their salads were delivered.

Pregnant as in they had to get married? Liz waited until the server had left to lean forward. “That’s why they got married?”

“Uh-huh. I think Rayanne had picked out Ethan a while before, but he wasn’t that interested. Then she got pregnant and he wasn’t the kind of guy to walk away.”

Liz ignored the stab of pain at hearing that and refused to wonder if he would have been willing to marry her if he’d found out about Tyler. She knew the answer. After all, Ethan was a Hendrix.

“Then I showed up,” Liz said. “Threatening her happy world.”

“She must have been terrified. Especially if she knew that you and Ethan had been involved before. She would have thought she could lose everything.” Pia looked at her. “You probably think she deserved it. She wasn’t exactly nice to you in high school.”

Neither were you. Liz thought the words, but didn’t say them. Pia was different. Not the same mean girl she’d been back then.

“No one deserves to lose everything,” Liz said at last.

“But it happens.” Pia sipped her wine. “It did to me.”

“What are you talking about.”

“You don’t know? Oh, right. You were gone by then.” Pia shrugged. “My senior year of high school it all fell apart. My dad lost his job.”

“He owned the company, didn’t he?”

“He was president, which isn’t exactly the same thing. It seems sales weren’t as good as he had led the board of directors to believe. He’d also been stealing money for years. Not telling the employees was one thing, but not telling the IRS is another. He was charged with tax evasion, fraud, theft. I can’t remember everything. My mom took off for Florida. I wanted to stay here and finish high school. She agreed. When I graduated, she said, after what she’d been through, it would be better if I learned to stand on my own.”

Liz didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry.” Her own mother hadn’t been a prize, but at least she’d grown up used to it. Pia’s mother had done an about-face at the worst time in a young girl’s life. That made things worse. “What about your dad?”

“He killed himself the day before the trial started.”

Liz dropped her fork onto the table. “Pia. I’m so sorry.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“That can’t make it any easier to deal with.”

The other woman looked at her and smiled slightly. “It makes it easier to forget. Besides, I was a real bitch in high school. Maybe I earned it.”

“No. You didn’t. I really am sorry.”

“Sorry enough to let the whole naked-with-Ethan thing go?”

Liz nodded. “I was never really angry at you.”

“I’m a safer target than Ethan. Right?”

Liz shrugged. “And you’re also insightful. That’s annoying.”

Pia’s smile turned genuine. “This is probably where we say we’re going to start over and really be friends.”

Liz thought about everything going on in her life. How there wasn’t anyone she could talk to. How nice it would be to have someone on her side.

“I’d like that,” she admitted.

“Me, too.”

Pia sighed. “You need to give the town a chance. I know things have been rough, but the people here will support you, if you give it time.”

“No, thanks. I’m not buying into the theory of small-town bliss.”

“Maybe we’ll change your mind.”

“Maybe hell will freeze over.”

Pia laughed. “You never know.”

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